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Are Factory Farms Family Farms?

And What Is a Family Farm Anyway?


family farmers may be factory farmers too

by Diane Rosenberg | Executive Director

The English language is constantly evolving, and word meanings change over time. For example, “garbage” originally referred to the internal parts of fowl (15th century), “meat” was food of any kind and “liquor” encompassed all liquids in the 12th century.


New words get added every year. Rizz (charismatic), beige flag (trait of a boring partner), and Swiftie (Taylor Swift fans) entered dictionaries in 2023.


Which brings me to two terms, one that’s changed and one that emerged during this age of industrial agriculture: “family farm” and “factory farm.” The first now generates confusion; the second draws the ire of Big Ag.


Recently, a farmer asked how JFAN and other environmental groups define factory farms and family farms. It’s a good question because Big Ag uses “family farm” freely for family-owned industrial livestock confinements.


Industry columnist Michelle Miller, aka Farm Babe, recently published a piece in AgDaily, “Is Agriculture Really Full of ‘Factory Farms.”

She uses a lot of words, statistics  and definitions to make her case that 97% of US farms are owned by families and are, therefore, not factory farms.

I can’t argue with the statistics, but that obfuscates the true definition of a factory farm and why the stand-alone term, family farm, no longer represents a pastural farm that many major meat, dairy and egg corporations would like you to envision.

Inside a factory farm
Industrial livestock production facility, aka factory farm.

(Here’s an interesting tidbit – farmers who were courted by CAFO integrators in the 1990’s say that back then CAFO integrators proudly called CAFOs “factories” to tout their claimed efficiency. Now, as Miller illustrates, Big Ag bristles at that term.)

Factory Farms Are Not Real Farms. They are Factories.


JFAN, and other environmental organizations, define factory farms as the model of how livestock is raised. It’s not related to the size of an operation nor its ownership, but rather that livestock is raised in confinement buildings or on feedlots.


Factory farms are not farms. They are industrial livestock production facilities built and operated to gain the most economic benefit using the least amount of resources raising livestock in the least natural state possible. They operate as factories, they pollute like factories, but they’re not regulated like factories.

Factory farms collect urine and feces – a liquified manure - in pits or lagoons that decomposes anaerobically (and stinks in the process). Manure is then pumped out once or twice a year and typically injected into crop fields. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy attributes 92% of nitrate and 80% of phosphorus pollution in Iowa water to this agricultural system.


Livestock raised in feedlots, typically cattle, are also considered factory farms since they don’t have access to pasture. They are confined on small dirt lots, live amongst their own waste products, and are fed hay and grains nearly their entire lives.


factory farm feedlot
Cattle feedlot aka factory farm. Photo: USDA/Alice Welch

Some cattle and dairy cows live in confinements that are 90% roofed, and these are also considered factory farms for the same reasons even though 10% of the buildings are unroofed.

Who Owns the Hogs?


Most factory farms are owned or operated in one of two ways. Corporations, such as JBS, Iowa Select, and TriOak Foods, build and own their operations and hire employees to manage them. Or factory farms can be owned by farmers who contract with these large, vertically integrated corporations to raise the livestock for them.


Typically, contract growers construct, maintain and own the buildings (about $800,000 for a 2500-head hog confinement) and are responsible for manure disposal. The corporate integrator owns the hogs, provides the feed and veterinary care, directs how the confinement buildings should be constructed, and provides detailed instructions on how to raise the hogs.

After about five months, the corporation picks up the grown hogs paying the farmer a set amount for each animal. The corporation then slaughters and processes the hogs, markets and distributes the products, and retains the vast majority of the profits.  


factory farm
Photo: D Brozek

Hence, the factory farm model. Neil Hamilton, former Director of the Drake Ag Law Department referred to CAFO owners and operators as “hog-house janitors” to give a clear picture of their real role.

Traditional, Independent Family Farms


This is all very different than a traditional, sustainable independent farm where animals are allowed to enjoy their natural behaviors and are raised with full access to the outdoors, on pasture, or in hoop house operations.

Traditional, independent farmers don’t contract with integrators. They breed their own livestock or purchase piglets, then sell grown livestock either through a cooperative; by direct marketing to individuals, restaurants, websites; or by distributing through food hubs. While they may raise fewer hogs than a factory farmer, they receive a higher price per animal without the burden of carrying an $800,000 mortgage.


family farm
This is a real farm.

Traditional, independent farmers make all their own decisions about how to raise their livestock using traditional animal husbandry practices, work with independent veterinarians, and grow or purchase feed. All expenses are borne by the farmer, but they also realize all the profits.


Manure is either composted or pastured animals deposit wastes directly on the soil where hooves, rain, and microorganisms break it down to build soil health. 


Traditional, independent farms also attain to be as efficient as possible, but using a different model of efficiency based on a different set of values. These farms can be small or medium sized operations, such as those run by Greg Gunthorp at Gunthorp Farms or Will Harris at White Oak Pastures. It’s not the size that matters – it’s the method in which the livestock is raised.

Cattle on a traditional, independent family farm
Photo: USDA/Preston Keres

Now here’s the rub. A family farm can be a CAFO since a family can own a confinement operation, or it can be a traditional, independent farm.


The definition of “family farms” has changed over the years with the CAFO industry adopting the term since most livestock is now raised in factory farms. But the image the industry often portrays in promotional materials is that of small, traditional independent farms. “Family farms” is a term from the past that the CAFO industry has co-opted because of its positive associations.


JFAN doesn’t use the term “family farmer” by itself any longer. Instead, we pair the term with other words such as traditional, independent, small scale or some combination of those words in order to give a true picture of a real farm.


Don’t be fooled by the industry’s use of “family farms.” If it’s a family-owned CAFO, it’s still a factory farm.


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